Mladen Dolar - Notes and thoughts from Vocalities blog

My Presentation Notes on Mladen Dolar's essay 'The Metaphysics of a Voice' from A Voice and Nothing More. – The phony schizophony and Derrida’s questionably founded phonocentrism….First posted on the Vocalities Blog

Firstly let's re-view Lacan's Graph of Desire that Dolar opens with:
Dolar jettisons many of the finer points of this journey, of the signifier to voice trip and the signifier-out-and back into the structural ‘other’ that Lacan would focus on (the “retroactive production of meaning”, the “quilting point” or the inevitable stitching of itself back into the system -as I like to think if it, like Theseus stitching himself back into the heart of Daedalus’ labyrinth… ). Instead he (Dolar) asks why the Voice runs out into being a “remainder”. If the system, quilts signification and encodes through the re-absorption into the structure then what is this Voice that is left behind on the right side of the diagram? By this process of reduction, a remainder is left behind – this is the object voice. It’s outside of the system, an outcome, it doesn’t signify (that facet of the voice is swimming about in the middle of the graph). It is the remainder left ofter the signification. So whilst there is a phonological / language voice drifting around the system, being re-quilted in meaning, being coded, there is also a strange a-phonological remnant.

“It is a non-signifying remainder resistant (immune) to the signifying operations, a leftover heterogeneous to structural logic…and as such it seems to present a sort of counterweight to differentiality; the differential always refers to absence whilst the voice seems to embody a presence” – Dolar P. 36

Signification(s), structure(s) etc are webs and cosmos of absences but this voice is the remainder after this structure of signification (through absence), it is the positive remnant that signification and phonology cannot accommodate, cannot ‘work’.

So phonology/logos/the internal structures of signification/codifications can deal with the differences, the absences – they are in some respects constituted from absences. These structures of signification can work the absences and differences, but this remainder, this anomalous positive, elusive ghostly object voice, the Voices irreducible “missing half” seems “to enable this negative being to acquire some hold in positivity, a ‘substance’ a relationship to presence” Dolar P. 36.

So from this split, between

Absence(s) and ‘Presence’
Codified and Un-coded
Signification and Immune to signification
Reducible and Remnants of reduction
Negative and Positive
Systemic interior and Exterior

Dolar asks

“Does the voice essentially relate to presense after the symbolic has done away with all the positive features? Is pure presense, then, the remaining residue? Does the object voice, as the necessary implication of the structural intervention run into the notorious “metaphysics of presense” as its most recent and most insidious variation?” Dolar P. 37

By this Dolar is, as I understand, asking: Does this renegade remnant, this voice that is immune to the signification system, or is left behind after it’s reductions and subsequent phonologic abuses, does this remainder mean presence? Does it really?

From this Dolar looks at metaphysics history of phonocentricism emerging from phonologo-ism or rather a paranoid shizophony, of consistently taking phonocentric presuppositions concerning the Voice – something that has often lead to us seeing the Voice as closer to meaning (because of a presupposed presence) than writing which is derivative. – “It consisted in the simple and seemingly self-evident assumption that the voice is the basic element of language, it’s natural embodiment and consubstantial with it, whereas writing presents its derivative, auxiliary and parasitic supplement (it merely fixes the spoken word)…” Dolar P.37

Dolar goes on to talk of how the metaphysical tradition has always supported the priority of the voice, and the voices unique proximity to essence of meaning because of auto affectation (amongst other things):

“The voice offered the illusion that one could get immediate access to an unalloyed presence, an origin not tarnished by externality, a firm rock against the elusive interplay of signs which are anyway surrogates by their very nature, and always point to an absence” Dolar P.37

Dolar then goes on to quote Saussure twice, each quote displaying a sentiment opposed to the other – outlining the paradoxical conundrum of the voice and its primacy of presence over writing – begging the question of where is language? Is true language in the voice or in the text? Because, and I hope I’m not over simplifying these notions here, if language is signification and they are absence(s) then the immediate presence afforded voice by the auto-affectation (for now) is not absence – but presence. Also, the voice is, a la the metaphysical traditions and subsequent phonocentrism closer to the essence of meaning, less removed – not quite a dead symbol like its other logosified mute cousin.

Dolar: “The subsequent fate of phonology was thus caught between the two as well: between, on the one hand, its unquestionable prejudice that the voice was the natural material of language, and thus the evident place to start; and, on the other hand, it’s (phonology) operations which dismantled the living presence of the voice into the lifeless differential matrix (..) – except for the residue, the remnant, which Lacan has taken to be the paradoxical OBJECT VOICE” Dolar P. 38

Dolar then goes on to re-iterate how metaphysical tradition maintains that the voice is the ultimate, with no trace of alterity – and that it does so by maintaining this idea of the voice as that golden nugget of auto-affectation – this divide between interior and exterior derives from here.

He then quotes Derrida, and in this context Derrida looks like he naively treats the voice as gospel, or rather that his phonocentrism comes from the ‘wrong’ place, aligning with the metaphysical traditions, as the voice as the closest purest form of the signifier “producing itself spontaneously from within the self” Dolar P.37 quoting Derrida.

Dolar doesn’t dwell on the phraseology of this quote from Derrida, but I’d like to just (to rub a little more salt into this Lacanian wound)….. “PRODUCING ITSELF” this really is a million miles away form the phonological, logos, the writing, signification of text and what we later find to be exterior rather than interior…. To say producing itself is to disregard the network of differences and the chasms of absences this shows just how interior and close to the essence of meaning Derrida considers the voice to be – “the origin of conceptuality, between vocality and ideality”. Dolar P. 37

Dolar then goes onto to examine how even though the voice is the primary auto-affectation, the first instance of putting something out there and being aware of it (our little trick to know presence – supposedly), it is not the same as the mirror stage. The roots of this notion are found in Narcissus’ relationship with the nymph Echo, the details (of all the myths) are enthralling – but the point of this mythic example is that Narcissus loved his reflection, but he didn’t love his echo (despite not being aware that this voice was an echo initially..), his voice bouncing back at himself – because the moment there is a surface to bounce our voices back at us our “Narcissism crumbles.” Dolar  P. 40

“As soon as the object (..) voice appears as the pivotal point of narcissistic self-apprehension, it introduces a rupture at the core of self presence. It is something that cannot itself be present, although the whole (metaphysical, derridian, historical) notion of presence is constructed around it” Dolar P. 42

“So if, for Derrida, the essence of the voice lies in auto-affectation and self transparency, as opposed to the trace, the rest, the alterity, and so on, for Lacan this is where the problem starts” Dolar P. 42

So for Lacan, “This object voice embodies the very impossibility of attaining auto-affectation; it introduces a scission, a rupture in the middle of full self presence, and refers it to a void, a void in which the voice comes to resonate” Dolar P. 42

In the section titled A brief course in the history of metaphysics. Dolar re-examines the phonocentric bias of Derrida in relation to the phonological tendencies that have cropped up throughout history… I won’t regurgitate all the examples he runs through, but to sum this strategy up crudely it’s basically that for millennia there has been an enforced logosification of sound and voice and music. This Logophony, this phony phonology has been working to shirk away from the exteriority of the voice (and in many ways shows the bias in dealing with such a schism)

“the voice should not stray away from the words which endow it with sense; as soon as it departs from its textual anchorage, the voice becomes senseless and threatening” Dolar P. 43

Dolar goes through Plato, Aristotle, Chinese emperor Chun, Wagner, Saint Augustine… throwing up example after example that consistently show the long established tradition of reigning in the voice to text, of always having an urge of shackling it into textual signification, away from the sensuous, dangerous and scary realm of resonance and alien exteriority. This tradition is not just confined to words, it extends to music too – and I can’t but feel Leonard Bernsteins example of children saying Nurr Nurr Nuh Nurr nuh as e e  Ff e Ff is worth chucking in here…. Sonologos…. Music turning into significations/absences - text and codes…

Along this journey Dolar also mentions of how the voice sound, outside of logos can be harnessed for good, as an appreciation of god, as something to “animate the energy of the defenders of equality”. So all the way from Plato’s hatred of the flute to Hildeberg of Bingen’s cunning reversal of sonic roles in relation to good and evil in her Ordo Virtutum there is a dichotomy between the sound of utter joy or depravity that is immune to signification and irreducible and exterior – the object voice AND the voice as text, as something which follows words -  here is the schism, the lacanian problem that Dolar shows to be perhaps more than just a Lacanian interpretation but an issue that has been battled with ever since Narcissus said to his own voice: “I’d rather die than fall prey to you”.

Dolar sums up: “from this brief (..) survey we can draw the tentative conclusion that the history of ‘logocentrism’ does not quite go hand in hand with ‘phonocentrism’, that there is a dimension of the voice which runs counter to self transparency, sense and presense: the voice against logos, the voice as the other of logos, its radical alterity.” Dolar P. 52

Dolar talks of how metaphysics can only yield phonocentrism and the voice as presence by demoting writing AND ALSO ignoring or banishing the sensuous aspect of the voice and disavowing it’s inherent alterity.

“The presence of the present in the voice becomes doubtful the moment sense is eluded, (and as we know there is always that nonsensical, un-coded, to put it bluntly, remnant), and this dissociation is at the core of the Lacanian operation”


…this division, this schism is not “the proper dimension of the object voice. It is only here that the Lacanian problem really starts”. Dolar P. 52

Shofar: Examples of the remnant as the masculine, and gods voice – a is now b and b is now a…. phonologos’ authority comes from the only part that is not law, that is not logos…

Personally I like this part of the essay least, I feel the leap to the father’s ominous sonic presence a touch ‘clunky’, nonetheless, I’ll talk a little bit about this next step because it provides a nice springboard for introducing a Derridian betweenism…

So throughout the text Dolar has talked about the remnant outside of phonology… - there is always a part of voice that is incompatible and immune to logos…. But Dolar now introduces a nifty notion here – a paradoxical interpretation of the voice we have outlined so far. He explains how the gravity of gods voice, the shofar, the authority of the father (that is the signified part of the voice) only holds it’s authority through it’s remnant – it’s noise, it’s sound outside of signification.

“it seems that the voice, as a senseless (that’s the unsignified logos-immune remnant) remainder of the letter, is what endows the letter with authority, making it not just a signifier, but an act (…) as Lacan says: ‘that something which completes the relation of the subject to the signifier in what might be called, in the first approach, passage a l’acte’, Those primordial signifiers are inherently acts, namely something that happens when the signifier is not just articulated (..) but when it is uttered and vocalized” Dolar P. 55

Ss the logos facet of voice, can only become an act, holding enough weight to be the law or the father, because its remnant, what we have previously been referring to as the exo/object voice, has imparted the weight of act into it’s signification reduced brother – “it is the part which can never be simply present, but is not simply absence either: the object voice is the pivotal point precisely at the intersection of presence and absence” Dolar P. 55

At this point I’ll throw out the Derridian notion of Hymen (for those who are familiar) if not I’ll define this concept shortly, as will Dolar inadvertently.

Dolar on the two sides of this voice now..”…they are both the same, (..) there are not two voices, but only the object voice which cleaves and bars the other in an ineradictable (undestroyable) extimacy” Dolar P. 56

Extimacy meaning both inside and outside simultaneously and inherently but each is always in or out – exterior intimacy….

So in a very double, Mobius, paradoxical manner, the object voice is actually the composition/fusion/conflict of logos voice, because the logos voice is only given its authority, its act, by the ghostly un-logosifyable remnant – the sound. So the object voice is neither the reduced or the remnant, it is neither exo or interior it is both, the fusion.

“Masculine and feminine positions would then be two ways of tackling the same impossibility; they arise from the same predicament as two internally linked versions of dealing with the same object which retains in ineradictable ambiguity” Dolar P. 56

So, taking in hand the history of the feminine other/exo voice plaguing metaphysical histories, Christianity, the Greeks and so on and masculine (the Shofar, gods voice, logosification, the reduced etc) I’d like to ask if we are not dealing with a kind of hermaphroditic paradoxical object voice, a dyad of ineradicable extimacy?

Questions, thought food:

1)    Is this logosification of the voice still at work today more than ever? Continuing to hide it’s alterior remnant, think Vo-coders, auto-tuners, think samplers, think the Wilhelm scream robbed of any biological urgency or emotional weight through repetition and being reduced to a mere ‘horror signifier’.

2) Think of the male/female then logos/remnant positions of the voice that is at once presence and absence interior and exterior – can we use Derrida’s Pharmakos (remedy and poison) or Derrida’s Hymen notion (the inbetween that prevents but also consummates) – not to be too phallocentric but I think this analogy, this strategy has legs…

“The opposition of inside vs. outside is a frequent returning point of Derrida's interest. An example is found in his writing about the hymen. Hymen, the virginal membrane, but also the consummation of a marriage. (In Greek and Latin mythology, 'hymen' refers to the God of matrimony and to a hymeneal song.) As a protective screen, as an invisible veil, it stands between the inside and the outside of a woman, and consequently between (male?) desire and fulfillment. As a (con)fusion between two people (marriage), however, there is no longer any difference between desire and satisfaction. So, hymen both implies communion and hinders this communion; it is both barrier and interaction. Hymen is a fusion that abolishes contraries, for example, the difference between desire and its accomplishment. But hymen is also the fold of a mucous membrane that keeps them separate (cf. Dissemination, 209-18). 
It is not a matter of choice here. If we would choose between the two, there would be no hymen. Hymen is neither fusion nor separation, but stands between the two. Neither inside nor outside, but between the two. 'It is an operation that both sows confusion between opposites and stands between the opposites at once' (Dissemination, p.212). And it is the 'between' that counts. It outwits, as Derrida says, all manner of dialectics”

3) What do people enjoy about the voice and music (now we accept music is essentially a language – cue micro tone problems).. Think jimi Hendrix missing notes, think Florence at Glastonbury avoiding most notes etc etc

4) How can we read the massive rise in echo and reverb in modern pop music? Think witch house, drag, hauntological stuff, Maria Minerva!?!?! Is this echo effect abuse a strategy to bring the voice further into alterity and void of signification? Or a burgeoning form of voco-narcissism?

5)The MP3 as a metaphor for signifiers, absences, gaps – the MP3 a simulacra, signifiers with no object voice, with no remnant – can this be used for thinking about records, torrents, itunes in relation to live performance, gig experience, crowd sonix etc

few notes...

I read the Ovid story about Narcissus and Echo, I would have loved to include a painting or etching of Echo and Narcissus, but the only versions I could find depicted them as getting along quite well, and in the text it's obvious that as soon as Narcissus meets Echo and realises she is not who he's looking for he dislikes her.

Also in the Ovid text I have (translated by A.D. Melville) there is a lot of word play. For example when Narcissus says in disgust after Echo tries to hug him "I'd rather die than yield to you" Echo replies "I yield to you".... before this when Narcissus is looking for his friends and asks "Anyone here?" Echo replies "Here!" I think there maybe some scope for thinking around the logos facet's meaning only being subject to the exo-remnants desires etc, you can say the words but the un-coded remnant will betray you....

Mladen Dolar links + Musings on Echo and Narcissus

This Metropolis M interview is great, I meant to mention it in the presentation but I guess I forgot, what with all the talk of Narcissus and Echo.... Dolar talks of a missing chapter that he decided not include in the book, about "the ethics, metaphysics, physics, politics of the voice".

I am still mulling over the dynamic of the Exo irreducible remnant holding not just the ultimate animating power for the Logos side of voice to be taken as an act, to grant it weight and authority, but also as an ultimate force for totally warping meaning. Like the Echo and Narcissus story, when Narcissus calls out, the exo-echo deliberately (she loves him, she's besotted with him and know she can only use his words to woo him - "she longed to come to him with winning words") warps and reconfigures the meaning of his own voice, of his own intent.

It chanced Narcissus searching for his friends,
Called 'Anyone Here?' and Echo answered 'Here!'
Amazed he looked all round and, raising his voice,
Called 'Come this way!' and Echo called 'This way!'
He looked behind, and no one coming, shouted
'Why run away?' and heard his words again.
He stopped and, cheated by the answering voice,
Called 'Join me here!', and she, never more glad
To give her answer, answered 'Join me here!'
And graced her words and ran out into the wood
To throw her longing arms around his neck.
He bolted, shouting 'Keep your arms from me!
Be off, i'll die before I yield to you.'
And all she answered was 'I yield to you'

Goldigga got told.


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